What’s (Not) To Worry About?

Well, it’s not the end of the world, by a long stretch. In fact, it’s what I’ve heard is called in the Alcoholics Anonymous community “a bourgeois problem,” or “a luxury problem.” I shall write it down as such in Robin’s Baby Book–another “first.” “First class in D.C. that was filled before we went to sign up.” Parent & Child Learn-To-Swim. It was our (her Mamas’) fault; we thought the staff at the Aquatic Center said that registration was on March 14th, when in fact registration started on March 4th, so the fact that I had diligently marked it on the family calendar and trudged over to the Aquatic Center’s front desk at 7am this morning made no difference: the popular class’s 10 spots were filled, over a week ago now. Luckily, this is one of those things I am able to put in perspective. Oh, well. There will be plenty of other swim classes in Robin’s future. She is so into kicking right now it’s just a matter of figuring out other ways and times to get her into the pool, into the jumper, into the exersaucer. Any day now she’ll crawl. Which gives me some other things to worry about.

As a new, overly-educated parent in the U.S. in the 21st century, there’s indeed a long list of things I worry about. And I genuinely struggle to sort out which ones are worthy of my worry, and which ones to ignore. Getting her into a baby swim class? Not a big deal. But the often-mentioned but poorly documented toxicity of many baby toys troubles me. The high rate of asthma in D.C. combined with the obvious air pollution and rushing streams of exhaust-producing cars concerns me. The increasingly-watered-down regulation of produce, what actually qualifies as “certified organic,” and research I don’t have time to read about genetically-modified-food disturbs me. And lead poisoning completely freaks me out.  I’ve read this New York Review of Books article twice and until I get someone to actually screen our apartment for lead contamination, I worry. Don’t you? Did you read this part: “Minuscule amounts of lead can poison a child. The signs of severe lead poisoning—convulsions, pain, coma, etc.—are typically seen when the concentration of blood lead exceeds sixty micrograms per deciliter (a tenth of a liter) of blood. This corresponds to the ingestion of a total amount of lead weighing about the same as six grains of table salt.” Six grains of table salt! A visitor’s shoes could track in that much lead from our D.C. streets in a single afternoon. Of course I worry.

And that’s just it: the list of things I could worry about is endless. A column about parenting that a friend recently shared described part of our role as parents as “constant vigilance.” I’m not excited by this job description; I was already prone to pondering worse-case scenarios, before having a kid. The bumper sticker “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention” has resonated with me for decades–but, given that I’m quite attentive-by-nature, how do I not spend all my time being outraged? Constant outrage is not the kind of orientation-to-the-world I want to model for our child. So now I can add to the list “worrying about worrying too much.”

Today our marvelous, wonderfully-mellow babysitter spent 15 minutes doing some initial baby-proofing of our apartment while I nursed The Kid to sleep. There are whole chapters of books I have glanced at but haven’t read carefully about the hazards of the home. What is it, exactly, that our baby can do with an exposed electrical outlet or extension cord, like just the kind we’ve had sitting around on the floor right by her play area for months, until today when I finally rolled it up and put it in the closet? What could she do–put her tongue into it? Her fingers? Do I really want to know? These days I’m well aware I don’t get out of my own head often enough to maintain a healthy perspective. Too often I go to bed stewing on something I read in the paper, noticed online, or overheard on the radio. How do you find that balance between worrying (as in: fretting alone) and acting (as in: accepting what is real and doing something about it?) How do we all find some equilibrium between what I call the disease of “agit-itus” and a more grounded, calmer caring that is conscientious but not frantic?

At some point every day or evening, I sing Robin one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist hymns, the very first one in our shared hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition: “May nothing evil cross this door.” I’m aware of its naive simplicity, though. These days, we know that evil is systemic and insidious. It creeps into our lives through prejudice and ignorance, through exactly the kinds of initially well-intentioned efforts that resulted in the lead studies documented above. What we don’t know can hurt us. What we don’t take the time and effort to think about carefully can harm whole communities, whole generations of people.

Several years ago now, my black Womenspirit clerical robe went missing from the rented sanctuary of the church I was serving (relatively minor worry #127: yes, this can happen. Do people steal robes & stoles? It never turned up.). It was just weeks before Easter Sunday. Chaplain and UU colleague Rev. Karen Taliesin sent me her robe on loan, in a box with a few of the beautiful prayer/mantra/poem cards she creates to give out to the families and staff she serves at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. One of the cards features a short prayer by Reiki founder Mikao Usui, and it surfaced in my life this week. I’ve had it sitting on our home altar. This first line is: “Just for today, do not worry.”

I’ve known some people who “give up worrying for Lent.” As they say in AA, I’ll start with “just for an hour.” Heck, I’ll start with just a paragraph, just a breath! One full and complete breath without worrying. I aspire to a full night’s sleep without the adjectives “interrupted” or “fitful” anywhere nearby. Months ago now, my partner Cathy gave me a little brown notebook that, starting tonight, I’m keeping in the bathroom cabinet. Each night after I floss and brush my teeth (worry #235 about what’s in toothpaste and the epidemic of childhood tooth decay) I’m going to jot in that notebook what worries are rising to the surface of my thoughts, percolating and steaming there like over-brewed coffee. I strive to leave those worries there, at least for the night, scribbled down in the notebook, shut in the cabinet. I’m going to turn off the bathroom light and go to sleep. And we’ll see what the new day holds. We’ll see.

  • Dave Dawson

    Rev Heather,
    Pleasantly surprised to see your blog. Hope to meet you in person in the not too distant future as we (my wife and I) are members at All Souls in DC. Our kids are now grown with young children of their own. As I think back about our oldest child, we tried to do everything “by the book.” Now we often chuckle about the changes after our second child arrived for e.g. if the baby drops a bit of food on the floor…the 3 second rule applies…if you can pick it up before 3 seconds pass…no germs got on it and it is still safe to eat. Don’t worry, you’re a great parent!

    • Rev. Heather Rion Starr

      Thanks, Dave, and it was good to meet you this past Sunday, at All Souls!

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